Programs' Fate Complicates Path to ESEA Deal
Should there be a separate federal program for school counselors in legislation to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? What about community schools, and gifted education?
And just how many federal education programs will conservative lawmakers in Congress be able to tolerate without putting the brakes on what will need to be a delicately balanced compromise?
Those are some of the tricky—and politically charged—questions top lawmakers on education must tackle as they try to hammer out a final agreement on a reauthorization of the ESEA.
Over the summer, the Senate passed overwhelmingly a bipartisan bill to renew the law for the first time since 2001. Meanwhile, the House narrowly approved its own bill, with just Republican support.
And while both measures seek to scale back the federal role when it comes to accountability, they take very different approaches when it comes to the myriad programs included in the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act.
The House bill would scrap—or consolidate—more than 20 existing education programs, according to an analysis by the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington.
What's more, the House bill would call for the Education Department to make proportional staff cuts.
By contrast, the Senate measure would eliminate only a handful of programs that currently receive funding.
Bills in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act differ on which targeted U.S. Department of Education programs to retain. Here are a few notable programs that would be eliminated under the House bill. Amounts reflect their current funding.
School Improvement Grants
$505 million for grants for low-performing schools
21st Century Community Learning Centers
$1.15 billion for after-school and summer programs
$28 million for grants for Advanced Placement and other programs that allow high school students to earn college credit
Ready To Learn Television
$57 million to help schools pair academics with support services such as health
Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Grants
SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Congressional Research Service
That puts negotiators in a tight spot, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the CEF.
"You have the House saying very clearly we want to have far fewer programs, more ability for states and school districts to transfer money," he said.
But each of the programs that remains in the Senate bill is there because it has at least one "powerful champion" in Congress—who could in turn consider withholding support for the measure if it doesn't include that favorite priority.
To be sure, being included in the ESEA doesn't guarantee that a program will actually get federal funding.
The ESEA measure is an "authorization" bill, which means that the programs in it are enshrined in federal law. But an "authorization" doesn't mean that the program will get federal money—those decisions are made in spending bills.
At the same time, being "authorized" does put a program in a much stronger position when it comes time to write spending legislation, Packer said.
"If your authorization exists, it gives you the opportunity to fight for funding through the [congressional spending] process," he said. "If your program is not authorized, it's not impossible, but it's significantly more difficult to get funding."
Asking for Inclusion
That's why supporters of programs that are included in the Senate bill—but not the House—are pleading their case to the lawmakers hammering out the compromise.
For instance, dozens of organizations, including the American School Counselor Association, sent a letter this month to the education committee chairmen in both chambers—Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.—and to the top Democrats on K-12 policy, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. The groups asked them to make sure that the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program stays in the bill.
The program "is the only dedicated funding for schools to create or expand comprehensive school counseling programs," wrote Amanda Fitzgerald, ASCA's director of public policy, in an email.
Those professionals are key, she said, to "early intervening services that many schools are going without." That's especially true, she said, in states with particularly high student-to-counselor ratios. For example, Arizona's is 880-to-1, according to ASCA, which recommends a 250-to-1 ratio.
And a coalition of lawmakers supporting science, technology, engineering, and math education sent a similar letter to the same top negotiators, asking them to look out for resources supporting those content areas in crafting the compromise.
Other programs in similar straits include Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama administration initiative that enables schools to pair academics with other services, like health, and resources to help fix low-performing schools.
The 21st Century Community Learning Centers' initiative, funded at about $1.1 billion this school year, is the largest program that the Senate has embraced, but that the House would like to get rid of. In fact, the program, which offers grants for after-school and summer programs, was originally left out of the Senate bill, but was added back in through an amendment with broad, bipartisan support.
Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, whose members benefit from the program, said that doesn't mean it will survive conference negotiations.
"We get that we're up against a philosophy of really wanting to consolidate programs," she said.
But she thinks that would ultimately limit school districts' ability to finance after-school programs. "We think it's going to lead to less choice, not more."
What's more, the Senate bill would create some brand-new programs—most prominently a new investment in early-childhood education that's a big priority for Murray and the Obama administration.
It also includes a new literacy investment along the lines of a program Murray has been championing for years. And it would add a new research and innovation program that could serve as a successor of sorts to the administration's Investing in Innovation program.
There are also programs that would be scrapped under both bills, some of which haven't been funded for years, including Reading First (a George W. Bush-era program aimed at improving literacy that faced conflict-of-interest allegations) and the Even Start Family Literacy program, a favorite of former House education chairman Bill Goodling, a Pennsylvania Republican who left Congress more than a decade ago.
That's the problem, Packer said, for programs with just one powerful supporter on Capitol Hill.
"Once their champion is no longer in Congress, they often fade away," he said.
Vol. 35, Issue 10, Pages 16, 19Published in Print: October 28, 2015, as Fate of Programs Complicates Path to ESEA Compromise